Why Joe Biden's vice presidential selection could be the most consequential in US history

Former vice president is facing mounting calls to choose a woman of colour as his running mate as racial tensions in the US bubble over, writes Griffin Connolly

Wednesday 22 July 2020 20:08 BST
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has a momentous choice for who will be the vice president on his 2020 ticket. (Photo courtesy Reuters)
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has a momentous choice for who will be the vice president on his 2020 ticket. (Photo courtesy Reuters) (REUTERS)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It’s a favourite tradition of political scientists, pollsters, and presidential historians every four years around this time to remind journalists that the major parties’ vice presidential selections don’t really matter all that much — electorally speaking, at least.

Study after study continues to show it’s the top of the ticket that ultimately motivates voters to walk, drive, or otherwise locomote to the polls on Election Day.

This November, it’s Donald Trump versus Joe Biden, not Mike Pence versus Mr-Biden’s-yet-to-be-named-running-mate.

But the academic clique of wet blankets who quadrennially tell us to settle down over the running mate selection process is a measure more enthusiastic this year about the consequence of Mr Biden’s choice, which he plans to announce in early August, for both the election and the internal politics of the Democratic party moving forward.

Mr Biden told an Arizona news outlet recently that he intends to pick a running mate around 1 August.

His campaign is conducting background checks of the shortlist candidates, a crucial steps towards identifying potentially disqualifying parts of their histories or other red flags. Presidential campaigns always conduct those checks, as well as inches-thick question sheets of all potential VP candidates to ID weak spots, security risks and potentially lethal political anchors that could cost the presidential nominee the election – if damning enough.

Mr Biden has said recently he intends to interview the candidates – reportedly all black women – left on his shortlist.

"I am not committed to naming any (of the potential running mates)," he told MSNBC this week. "Among them there are four black women."

Though selecting a black woman would be an American first, that is not Mr Biden's top requirement. VP to a president who kept him involved in almost every big decision, the 77-year-old Biden says he will seriously consider whether he feels each of the remaining candidates would be able to take over as president, should something happen to him.

"First thing I want to make sure is I have somebody, and I think they all are, capable of being president of the United States if something happens," he told a Phoenix television station recently

The longtime Delaware senator recently provided a peak inside his own thinking about his coming pick.

The country's ongoing moment of racial tensions has only put a "greater focus and urgency on the need to get someone who is totally simpatico with where I am," Mr Biden told CBS News earlier this month.

But, he added in a comment clearly shaped by his own time as the VP: "I want someone strong, and someone who is ready to be president on Day 1."

Bridging the progressive gap?

For one, the last two primary cycles have exposed a “clear cleavage within the party between a more and a less progressive wing,” said Meredith Conroy, a professor of political science at California State University in San Bernardino who specialises in the presidency and gender in politics.

Data suggests that extending an olive branch to the more progressive wing of the party vis-à-vis the vice presidential slot by picking, say, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is unlikely to produce any immediate bump to Mr Biden’s polling numbers among young leftists who have spearheaded the progressive surge.

Potential voters in a study in May were no more or less likely to say they’d vote for a Biden-Warren ticket over Mr Trump and Mr Pence than a hypothetical Democratic ticket with California Senator Kamala Harris, who is less progressive than Ms Warren, as Mr Biden’s running mate.

But choosing a progressive like Ms Warren could, over time, help Mr Biden evolve his own ideological image as someone who’s more appealing — or, at least, more tolerable — to that portion of the electorate, political scientists Christopher J Devine of the University of Dayton and Kyle C Kopko of Elizabethtown College have said. But the former VP is under pressure to select a woman of colour, which could eliminate Ms Warren. She is a former federal agency head, and could land a high-profile position in his Cabinet, sources say – perhaps even Treasury secretary.

Future face of the party

More importantly, gender and political scholars have said Mr Biden’s commitment to picking a woman as his running mate likely means a woman would be in pole position for the Democratic nomination in subsequent presidential elections.

That’s, of course, contingent upon two things: 1) Mr Biden winning this year, and 2) retiring from office on his own terms after 2024, or on the 22nd Amendment’s terms after 2028.

“You have somebody running for president who's at least alluded to the fact that he may be a one-term president, for age reasons or for any other dynamics, but particularly, I think, age,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

If Mr Biden indeed retires after 2024 (which he has not committed to do), the Democratic party could lose the White House by ceding all the advantages of incumbency and risk a contentious, drawn-out primary period.

In the event of his retirement, “it may be more likely that somebody steps in and runs for what would effectively be a second term for him [from the position of] vice president,” Ms Dittmar said.

Women in the White House

Women are still chronically underrepresented in the US federal government, which lags far behind most other developed democracies in that area.

Just one in every four senators or House members is a woman.

Every president in US history has been a man, and while Mr Biden’s running mate will be the third woman on a major-party presidential ticket in US history, the previous two (Democrat Geraldine Ferraro and Republican Sarah Palin) failed to make it to the White House.

And while political scientists and pollsters generally agree it is impossible to definitively attribute the failure of female presidential candidates and tickets with women VP hopefuls to any sexism within the US electorate, experts say gender is certainly a cause for hesitation for many voters.

That makes it doubly incumbent on Mr Biden, should he win, to reflect gender diversity in his chosen cabinet, activists have argued, because the nature of appointments to such influential seats of power neutralises the sexist biases of many voters.

Liberal women’s groups are hopeful that the presence of several women in prominent positions in a Biden White House would further normalise the idea of a woman president, and help dispel lingering concerns for some voters that they cannot perform the necessary duties of the executive branch.

“Appointments, like a VP, take sexist voters out the equation. And once in that position, the VP pick can alleviate any concern that women can't govern at that level,” Ms Conroy said.

It’s not just politics

Beyond electoral politics, Mr Biden’s vice president would likely play a critical advisory role in his administration, should he defeat Mr Trump in November.

While the American vice presidency was a largely ceremonial role throughout most of the country’s history, that has not been the case in recent decades.

In the last administration, Barack Obama largely viewed Mr Biden more as a partner and less as a subordinate, former aides have said.

And while Mr Obama made all final decisions, Mr Biden was consulted on virtually every one of them, and his input was well-regarded.

Modern presidents have chosen running mates not only for their political capital, but for who they think best enhances and complements their policy strengths and helps fill in their weaknesses.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who historians often cite as the most powerful man who has held that office in US history, was tapped by George W Bush, a Texas governor, largely for his expertise in international affairs.

Mr Biden, who served as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for eight years before moving to the White House with Mr Obama, was chosen for similar reasons, Mr Obama has said.

As race relations and protests against police brutality in minority communities have become defining political issues this summer after the deaths in police custody of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, calls have increased for Mr Biden to choose a woman of colour to be his running mate.

In addition to Ms Harris, who is black, Mr Biden is also reportedly considering Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who is Asian-American, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, 2019 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Florida Congressman Val Demings, and several others.

Ms Bass has years of experience crafting legislation and policies that particularly affect black Americans. Ms Demings, a former Orlando Police Department chief, and Ms Abrams, who has become a leading black enfranchisement advocate, each have extensive experience on issues important to communities of colour.

Some insiders suggest Ms Harris and Ms Demings have surged to the top of Mr Biden's shortlist.

Ms Harris, Las Vegas’ odds-on favourite to be Mr Biden’s selection, has her share of left-wing skeptics. That's largely due to her record as the California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney, with critics saying she was too tough on blacks who committed crimes.

“Who can help him in uniting this nation?” said Moe Vela, Mr Biden’s director of administration when he was vice president, indicating that such a question will be near the forefront of Mr Biden’s mind when he makes his selection later this summer. “We are the most divided probably we've ever been since the Civil War. We're probably more at odds than since those times."

The momentum for Mr Biden to choose a woman of colour as his running mate had been building for some time before Mr Floyd and Ms Taylor’s deaths.

Some of the most prominent outside women’s and progressive groups — She the People, Democracy in Color, Indivisible — signed onto a letter earlier this year urging him to do so, citing the reliability of minority women, particularly black women, in turning out at the polls for Democrats.

Seventy-seven per cent of Democratic voters in the last two presidential elections were women, people of colour – or both.

“This choice is a first indication of how you will govern, and we want to know it will be in partnership with the constituencies that comprise the vast majority of Democratic voters,” the groups wrote in the letter

Is America ready?

It’s a question the Democratic party confronted head-on in 2016: Is America ready for a woman in the White House?

In the ancillary position of vice president, the answer is probably yes, several scholars told The Independent.

Just look at the disparity between the relatively small number of women who have served as governor and women who have served as lieutenant governor, said Ms Dittmar, the Rutgers professor.

“There's a whole literature behind that which is about [voters] being most comfortable with men being at the head of the ticket or the head of the household [and how that] aligns with patriarchal values,” Ms Dittmar said.

The 2018 midterm elections were another data point that suggested voters are more prepared to cast ballots for women.

Democrats won back the House majority on the backs of 34 freshman women, many of whom carried districts that previously broke for Mr Trump.

But sexism is “still rampant in American politics (and society),” Ms Conroy suggested in an email, despite the “the enormous gains” made by women in Congress in 2018.

Those gains “didn't appear to chip away at those sexist beliefs about whether women are viable presidential candidates,” she said, noting that out of the historically diverse field of Democratic primary candidates in 2020, the top two contenders ended up being straight white men in their late 70s.

It’s not just sexism in the voting populace that women candidates confront — it’s also how many voters perceive the sexism of others, Ms Conroy said.

If someone who isn’t sexist thinks their neighbour is sexist, the non-sexist person is less likely to vote for a woman on account of her supposed unelectability.

Several studies support this theory of voter behaviour.

The progressive think tank Data for Progress found in a July 2019 survey that more people said they would make Ms Warren president if they could wave a magic wand than who said they would actually vote for her.

That’s “likely due to perceived sexism from others,” Ms Conroy said.

A heartbeat away

It’s an inconvenient truth for the Biden campaign — yet an undeniable biological fact — that the older you get, the more susceptible you become to life-threatening health issues.

And while Mr Biden’s campaign has swatted away concerns about his health, at 78 on Inauguration Day, he would be the oldest president to take office by eight years.

No matter their age, every presidential nominee in history has recognised his running mate is a heartbeat away from the presidency.

When choosing a vice president, candidates are also choosing someone who they believe could step in as president immediately.

“The number one question — I can assure you — that Joe Biden will have in his mind making a selection," said Mr Vela, the former Biden aide, "will be: Who is prepared and equipped to be president of the United States at any given moment?"

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